Back on the chain gang: This year 26 national restaurant chains are expected to plop down outlets in Denver.

Granted, we're going to need ways to employ all of the people who are moving here from California. And we'll have to have some way of feeding them, too. But this area already has an excess of top-quality, locally owned establishments that are hungry for your business; these places face Chapter 11 on a daily basis because people are too lazy to wander off the beaten path to get a good meal that costs no more than a lousy one at the chains.

Don't get me wrong; there are a few decent chains out there. But I'd rather eat at Mom and Pop's than Kenny Rogers Roasters anyday--unless, of course, they're serving actual pieces of Kenny Rogers.

So, quick, before the vultures arrive: Find a neighborhood eatery that suits your needs, and start eating there regularly. You'll be happy, the restaurant will be happy, and I'll be happy because you'll write and tell me all about it.

Open: Speaking of chains that don't deserve to do a booming business, ...Boston Chicken (based out of guess where?) has spread its wings again, opening its eighth and ninth Denver-area restaurants. One roosts at 7630 West 80th Avenue in Arvada, the other at 6485 West 120th Avenue in Broomfield. Love shacks: McCormick's will offer a Valentine cooking class and dinner on February 8. Food and drink to be discussed and ingested are those that reportedly have an aphrodisiac effect (you know, oysters, lobster, wine). The class starts at 6:30 p.m., with dinner at 8. The cost is $25 per person; call 628-5532 for reservations...Denver-area Arby's restaurants are official drop-off points for you sentimental types who want Loveland's imprint on your Valentine's Day cards (deadline February 8). The chain must not have appreciated the unflattering comment I made about its food a few weeks ago, because along with the V-Day announcement, I received an invitation to give Arby's a try--and, as further inducement, a coupon for a free sandwich. I'll keep you posted.

Fresh air: The Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution has released the new Colorado Guide to Smoke-Free Dining. Send GASP a buck and it'll send you the goods--a list of 771 restaurants (and a few bars) in 89 Colorado cities that are smoke-free. Call 444-9799, or write to GASP, 2885 Aurora Avenue, Suite 37, Boulder, CO 80303.

Chilling thought: Coors has jumped on the ice truck with Artic Ice, a beer produced using the exact methods employed by the originators of ice beer, Labatt's in Canada. The press release says the target for this much-needed new beer is "men ages 21 to 34 who prefer leading-edge products and like to experiment." Between the lines, I swear it says "suckers who don't know how to spell." Still, men who prefer leading-edge products and like to experiment can get Artic Ice on its debut date of February 14--the better to drown their sorrows after being frozen out by their valentines.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner